By Mary Thurwachter
After hearing residents’ concerns about house parties at suspected short-term rental properties, the Lantana Town Council at its July 13 meeting said it was addressing the problem but warned that a resolution won’t be easy.
In a letter to the Town Council, resident Lyn Tate said that on the weekend of July 11 a house on South Atlantic Drive appeared to be rented out for Saturday night only. “When it got dark, seven cars arrived and parked all over the front lawn,” Tate wrote. “Various young people poured out of the cars and the occupants partied with music until midnight and then left the next morning. A single guest met with the owner’s housecleaner and drove off. This makes the third weekend in a row that it appears the property has been rented out as a short term vacation getaway.”
Lantana does not permit rentals for less than 30 days in its R-1 and R-1A residential zoning districts.
Additionally, Palm Beach County restricted short-term rentals at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Those restrictions have not been lifted since COVID-19 cases began to surge.
But residents of Hypoluxo Island suspect some houses on the island are being used for short-term rentals.
Realtor Patricia Towle, who lives next to the party house Tate mentioned in her letter, said she had observed several houses on the island being advertised as rentals. “I found one property that was posted for $2,000 a night. There are various prices and locations, but I really see it as a health and safety issue with COVID-19. I don’t know whether property owners are required to clean, what their standards are. Just before I came here tonight, I saw something in the news about house parties in various states where young people gather to tempt fate.”
She said she hoped that wasn’t happening here.
Towle said enforcement seems to be a problem.
“Since most of these rentals take place on the weekends when code enforcement isn’t around, and they seem to happen at night — is there a way that you envision we can enforce this?” she asked.
Town Manager Deborah Manzo said it didn’t matter that the parties took place on the weekend and explained how the town handles illegal short-term rentals. She said once code enforcement officers are made aware of a suspicious house, they check to see if the property is being advertised on online sites such as Airbnb and VRBO.
“Then code enforcement will send a letter,” Manzo said. Seven letters have already been sent to property owners. The letters are friendly reminders advising that this is not permitted, she said. “If the rentals continue, a notice of violation is issued.”
If sufficient evidence is found, the case goes to the special magistrate, who could fine the property owner up to $5,000.
Nicole Dritz, the town’s director of development, said code enforcement is proactive. “We check the regular sites and we do that more for reaching out to the property owners to try to gain compliance from them. A lot of times, educating them is our best first step.”
Proving the violations is difficult, Dritz said. “Just seeing cars outside with out-of-state license plates is not evidence enough for the magistrate to rule against them. Firsthand knowledge is what our magistrate is looking for.”
That knowledge may be gained when an officer asks someone at the house pertinent questions, such as how long the renter is staying on the property. “If the renter says, ‘I’m just here for a night or two,’ that is firsthand evidence that we can take to the magistrate,” Dritz said.
Dritz has issued a department-wide rule that each of the town’s three code enforcement officers spends one hour per week visiting the properties in question. There are currently seven or eight properties on the list.